Europe's neutral anomaly fetes 200 years beyond borders

Sat May 21, 2016 4:18pm EDT
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By Alastair Macdonald

KELMIS, Belgium (Reuters) - A small town in Belgium that spent a century living outside the map of Europe's great power system celebrates the 200th anniversary of the quirky autonomy it secured in the wake of the Napoleonic wars.

Neutral Moresnet was the name given to the sliver of land, barely a square mile, that was home to a key deposit of the zinc ore calamine. It inspired tourists and anarchists - and utopian enthusiasts for the world language Esperanto - before succumbing to another round of the European bloodshed that gave it birth.

Granted independence in 1816 to keep a peace between Dutch and Prussians following the defeat of its former French imperial masters at Waterloo, it was swept away 98 years later by World War One. Now, as a town called Kelmis, it sits in Belgium, in the small German-speaking region close to Aachen in Germany.

"This is a unique history. This neutrality was a one-off. It has historical significance and that's a good reason to celebrate it," Kelmis mayor Louis Goebbels told Reuters at the start of a weekend of festivities for the bicentenary.

These included parades by Napoleonic military reenactors and lectures on the prosperity and freedoms enjoyed by defenceless, tiny Moresnet amid a Europe held together ever more shakily by the balance of powers forged at the Congress of Vienna.

Claimed by war-weary Prussians and Dutch, the Aachen Borders Treaty of June 26, 1816 divided the district of Moresnet between Berlin and Amsterdam with a narrow triangular strip containing the mine itself under shared control as Neutral Moresnet. When Belgium seceded in 1830, it took over the Dutch interests there.

Run by the Vieille Montagne company, which boomed by cladding the roofs of Paris and other cities with rain-proof zinc, the population of the 3.4 territory soared from 256 in 1816 to nearly 5,000 by the start of World War One in 1914.


Performers take part in a re-enactment during festivities in Kelmis, Belgium, May 21, 2016. REUTERS/Eric Vidal